Fallout 76 First Impressions (and Important P.S.A.)

P.S.A.: There appear to be legitimate issues with the the Fallout 76’s security. These issues allow players to hack and exploit the game, but more importantly it is claimed that these issues allow other players to potentially discover your IP address. As far as we have found Bethesda is aware of these issues and is working to fix them at the time of this article being published, but the fix has not yet been made. We encourage you to read into the situation and be aware of any risks that might be involved with the game. For the source of the claims further information click here and here.

Having played Fallout 76 for only a couple of days, I already have more to say about it than I could possibly write here. I purposely learned as little as I could bear about the game in the months leading up to launch in order to get that authentic feeling of heading out into the unknown wasteland. Initially, the game was disappointing and felt like a betrayal to the name Fallout, and while my fury has mellowed out, I can’t call it illegitimate. On the one hand, I don’t know that this game should even really exist and on the other, I’m glad it does since I still see a modicum of potential. Then on a third hand which I’m not sure how I got (probably something to do with all the radiation), I feel like it should have been so much more than it can honestly achieve from this starting point. There's a lot to talk about with this title, so let's go ahead and jump right in by answering some question based on my first several hours with Fallout 76.

Is this a true Fallout game?

I’m sure that if you’ve been paying attention you’ve heard that Fallout 76 has a blatantly obvious identity crisis. It straddles the line between a Fallout game and something akin to a Rust style online survival game, and in doing so, it compromises in elements of both. As a result, people have accused Fallout 76 of not being a "true" Fallout game, but rather Rust style game merely hiding beneath the veneer of Fallout to sell. Do I think that's true based on my time with the game thus far? Well, yes and no.

A game in the Fallout franchise has come to mean a single player campaign with a rich world packed full of interaction, where the player's choices have apparent and permanent effects on the world of the game and the player's experience. While Fallout 76 has the look and the environment of a Fallout game, it radically departs from this model by being an online-only game with a distinct lack of interaction. On top of this, the online nature of the game and what information I've picked up regarding its "end game" would indicate that my actions as I progress through the game's main story won’t be able to have any substantial, lasting effect on the world of the game since a long-term change for me would mean a change for every player on the server. As a result, the game’s story may be of little consequence and uncompelling as it continues. While I cross my fingers for things to be otherwise, I can’t say that I have any great faith in Bethesda’s story writing ability based on Fallout 4. Another pillar of what a Fallout game should be that we are missing, at least for now, is the ability to mod the game — which is going to hurt how replayable the game is until modding is rolled out.

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Unsurprisingly, the thing Bethesda truly pulled off is what they’re (at least in my opinion) best at: Making an intriguing map that spurs me to explore. The first reassuring moment I had playing was looking up in the little town of Flatwoods (pretty much the first place the player is directed to upon leaving the vault) and spotting a gargantuan bridge spanning the valley in which the town is nestled. I can say with confidence that it seems to be larger than any single structure in Fallout 4 and I could feel it beckoning me to make my way up the mountains and explore what it had in store. When I arrived at the summit, I was far from disappointed as I found the pleasant little details that I’ve come to adore in Bethesda’s open worlds. To name an example, I discovered a skeleton hanging from a tire swing tied to one the underside of the goliath bridge. Its little scenes like that that bring the dead world of the wasteland to life for me and make me fall in love with scouting out and rooting around each and every corner of the map (and with a map 4 fold the size of Fallout 4’s not inconsiderable commonwealth I’m not expecting to run out of sights to see any time soon). While it may seem like an absurd point to praise for many, I can’t help but appreciate such things from an open world map when I compare it with the comparative emptiness of a map like Neir: Automata’s. Unfortunately, while they’ve filled the world up with locations and little touches here and there, it still has felt empty due to the lack of interaction, NPCs, and compelling quests.

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As far as the game being a Rust like survival game, it doesn’t really hit the mark with that either. While the game has thirst, hunger, disease, radiation, and carry weight mechanics that force the player to think about what items they need to survive and to collect and craft these items continuously, it somehow still manages to fail to make survival a dominant concern. You see, the resources you need are so easy to come by that the most challenging aspect is having the patience to walk back to somewhere you can store all the stuff you’ve picked up when you’ve found more weight in supplies than you can carry. I get that Bethesda probably wanted to make it so that the player could focus on the story of the game and exploring rather than constantly struggling just to stay alive, but even so I feel like they severely cut the legs out from under the survival aspect of the game by making it too easy when the story thus far hasn’t been enough to make up for it. The matter is made worse by the fact that the game effectively discourages PVP by making attacks on other players deal reduced damage until they fire back thus further dumbing down the survival element. Considering that PVP isn’t even possible until level five and that the game includes a pacifist mode for players looking to stay out of firefights, I think that the reduced damage mechanic is a step too far in dampening the PVP. On the bright side, the issues plaguing the survival facet of the game could all easily be fixed in future updates so, once again, fingers crossed.

Are The Holotapes Really That Bad?

For those who aren’t aware, Fallout 76 contains very few friendly NPCs and none of any consequence. Instead, the game relies exclusively on terminals, notes, and, above all, holotapes to present its story and world. Many people are wildly upset by this. While I don’t think it’s as bad as people are making it out to be, I do see why people are so angry. The holotapes, notes, and terminals do a fair job of world building and of developing characters long dead before you arrived (though you have to have the patience to read/listen to everything, which I don’t think many players do) and they would be a serviceable way of presenting some side quests. Where they start to feel inadequate is the main quest. So far it's consisted of “find holotape, complete task specified on holotape, look for next holotape, repeat,” making the main story feel not only tedious but absurd. I get that Bethesda might have wanted to make Fallout 76 feel sparse and devoid of human life. Ideally, it could serve to both create the feeling that people are barely hanging on and that the players from the vault are critical to rebuilding Appalachia/America as well as to avoid issues like having to choose between letting players temporarily kill important NPCs or not letting them (one of which is game breaking, the other immersion breaking). Despite this, I can’t help but feel that if Bethesda had used an ounce of creativity they could have at least found a way to use NPCs sparingly. At the very least they could have you communicate with the characters over the radio so that you could have some small nugget of interaction. It might not have served to solve the tedious nature of the main quest, but it would have made the whole thing feel less ridiculous, and the world feel a little less empty.

Does the game feel like it’s early access?

Another thing that's been floating around is that the game feels unfinished, with some people I've talked to suggesting it should still be in beta or even early access. Once again, it's pretty easy to see why people keep saying this. The game is filled with bugs and seemingly even known hacks and exploits, some of which may raise security concerns. Many of the bugs I’ve encountered thus far have been harmless or amusing, like another player getting stuck in a baby carriage that moved around with them. However many bugs have been more of an issue, like enemies appearing and disappearing during combat, as well as ammo seemingly being placed into and removed from the player’s inventory for no reason. From what I’ve encountered so far and from what I’ve heard, I’m sure these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. While I’m confident Bethesda will roll out updates to deal with these problems, I can’t help but be amused (and perhaps even a little concerned) about the idea of Bethesda having to fix its own game rather than just relying on community generated patches/mods.

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To make the uncompleted vibe the game gives off worse, it's not what you might call graphically impressive (even when running on ultra). While I wouldn’t consider graphics to be Bethesda’s strong point anyway, the game feels like they didn't even try to improve on the visuals or atmosphere of 4 with many models (and probably textures) being ripped straight from the last game, adding to the overall feeling that Bethesda rushed the game to launch before it was ready. I would say that all things considered, the game really shouldn't have been released in this state. I mean, the thing was released without push to talk. Bethesda should have at the very least kept the game in beta longer or continued to keep it in development another year until they’re ready to release private servers and mods. Ideally, they should have refrained from releasing another Fallout until they had a new engine and graphics.

What’s New?

Apart from the obvious multiplayer aspects of Fallout 76, there are 2 changes from Fallout 4 that I feel are worth mentioning even if many will already be aware of them. The first is Fallout 76’s answer to the settlements system of Fallout 4: “C.A.M.P.” (Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform). The C.A.M.P. system is remarkably similar to the conquest mod for Fallout 4, allowing players to set up a… well camp where they can build similarly to how they were able to in settlements of the last game. The player places down the C.A.M.P. anywhere that isn’t too close to another location and is free to build what structures and items they have unlocked within the green borders of the camp. It more or less allows players to construct a sort of home base out in the wasteland and when they find a better location, they’re free to move the C.A.M.P. for a few caps. Then they’re free to start anew with anything they had previously constructed being reconstructable without needing to spend resources. It really feels like when coming up with the C.A.M.P., Bethesda took a look at what the community had done with the settlement system (namely the conquest mod) for inspiration and I can’t say I don’t appreciate that. The C.A.M.P system is, for now, kind of basic but I think that when mods finally come to Fallout 76 it'll provide a good platform for people to build off of.

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The second new aspect of the game that I think warrants attention is the new perks system. Fallout 76 has introduced a perk cards system. Each card is tied to one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. traits and has a perk you get for having it currently applied. The player receives a pack containing a random set of cards and a terrible joke each time you level up. On top of this, the player puts a point into one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. traits each time they level up and can choose a card for that trait out of shown options. Over time you build up a sort of deck of these perk cards. The more points you put into a trait, the more cards you can apply that are tied to that trait. To be honest (and this seems to be an unpopular opinion), I really like this system. It allows a player’s set of perks to be more like a load-out while still making each player's load-out feel somewhat unique and personal (at least at low levels) based on what points they have in various traits and what cards they’ve unlocked.

What Could Bethesda Have Done to Make a Better Game?

Fallout 76 is undeniably ambitious in some ways, and I can respect that. Bethesda is trying to take a beloved IP with an established structure and make something radically new with it by merging it with a completely different genre. An online survival incarnation of the wasteland is a great idea and done right I think it could make a spectacular addition to the franchise, but the key words there are done right. As ambitious as Fallout 76 is, I think what lets it down is that it's not ambitious enough: Bethesda made a way to play on 24-player servers and said “good enough. Everything can take place in this mode as long as we make some compromises.” Imagine the extraordinary game Bethesda could have produced if they had merely waited a few more years (or however long it would have taken them) before putting out their next title and looked to GTA V for a little inspiration. Just think about if this game had both a truly great single player with the kind of world-changing consequences I fear 76 can’t deliver on, as well as a separate multiplayer with its own more modest story. Not only that, but they could have used cut scenes and separate servers specifically for quests like GTA, thus allowing them to sparingly use NPCs for telling the story of the multiplayer. I think they would have been able to create both a better Fallout game and a better online survival game if they had simply set a higher goal for themselves.

Conclusion: Is Fallout 76 Worth Buying?

While I’m enjoying Fallout 76 for now, I cannot recommend it at this time. What little the game has going for it is, for now, overshadowed by the lackluster graphics, numerous glitches, the games identity crisis, and above all else the potential exploit and security issues laid out by the links provided by the P.S.A. at the beginning of this article. I do expect that Bethesda will fix the exploit and security issues in a timely manner, but even then I suggest that you wait to see what direction future updates take the game in. While I suspect (or at least hope) the game is going to get better with updates, I just can’t recommend the game until such a time. When private servers and modding become available (which Bethesda says won't be coming for at least a year), I can’t fathom that the fans of the franchise won’t show as much creativity and talent in creating mods as they did for previous games, so I think that, at least, holds undeniable potential. Wait till the game is fixed and on sale before putting your money into the game.